When we give people advice or answer their questions, we often have to sell them on the answer. Think about it in your own family. When a child asks you a question, you, as the adult, give them the answer. But you’ve likely heard the old saying, “In one ear and out the other,” so you have to sell them on the idea that what you’re giving them is good advice and they should follow it.
The same is true for business. When you give people answers to their questions, you don’t necessarily know how they’re receiving it. Even if you think you can read their body language and facial expression, there are still doubts. Have they really embraced it? Have they accepted it? Do they like that answer? Will they act on it?
The ultimate answer, I believe, is already in the person who is asking the question. That’s why the best answer is to give them a question that helps them clarify the answer they already know. Here’s an example of this.
Years ago, I was out in my front yard when a boy from my neighborhood came walking toward me, crying.
“What’s wrong, Tommy?” I asked.
He told me that his dog had died. He then looked up at me through his tears and asked: “Mr. Burrus, do you think there are dogs in heaven?”
What should I say? I could have given him some religious or theological answer, and it would have meant nothing to him. I could have asked, “What religion are you? Do you believe in heaven or hell? Do you believe in God?” But all of those questions wouldn’t have given him any answers. I could have simply said, “Absolutely! Of course!” but would that reassure him or make him feel any better? I doubted it. After all, what did it really matter what I thought? The real question was, what did he think?
I looked into his eyes and said: “Tommy, would heaven be heaven without dogs?”
He thought for a moment, nodded slowly, and gave a heartbreaking smile. “Thanks, Mr. Burrus.”
Why did that approach work? Because Tommy already knew the answer. What I did was give him a question that clarified the answer in his mind, which made it an extremely powerful answer because the answer did not come from me, it came from him.
For most of the questions people ask, the answer is inside of them—even you. In other words, when someone asks you a question, they already know the answer. It just hasn’t been clarified in their mind yet.
Therefore, a powerful trait of great leaders is to understand how to use clarifying questions to pull the answer out of the person who is asking the initial question. When you use this approach, the answer does not have to be sold; it will be embraced because the answer is theirs. So ask away. The questions, the answers, and the results will surprise you.